The Politics of the Child: Isaiah 9:1-7 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In Isaiah’s prophecy a young child serves as a sign puncturing the gloom of a dark political situation. The use of infants and young children to draw attention to God’s future within the book of Isaiah has significance for our own political visions. In regarding the sign of our children we can accomplish an existential turn from a politics driven by the selfish interests of our own generation to one of responsibility and hope for the well-being of those to come.

Isaiah 9:1-7
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

In a passage associated with the period of the Syro-Ephraimite War (736-732BCE), whether during its midst or at its end, we are presented with a vision of the restored fortunes of the beleaguered nation of Judah. Over a land formerly shrouded in the darkness of war and its aftermath, a new dawn has risen and the birth of a child heralds a new age of national prosperity.

The scene for this passage is set by the previous chapter, within which a period of gloom and silence is described. During this period of silence, God’s word is not heard. Held in suspense, the prophet and his disciples withdraw into a sort of hibernation, waiting for divine revelation to break the winter of the nation’s suffering (8:16-18). Among their contemporaries, there would be those tempted to search out other forms of revelation, forms of revelation that would drive them into the deepest darkness (v.22).

Unlike those in the nation who pursued false gods and mediums, a glorious new dawn has come for those who waited for YHWH. In verses familiar from many Nativity plays and most memorably presented in Handel’s Messiah, the prophet declares that the people who walked in darkness had seen a great light. This new dawn arose in the very regions of northern Israel first annexed by Tiglath-Pileser III—Napthali and Zebulun. Expressed in a form akin to that of a thanksgiving hymn, the prophet’s announcement of the reversal of Judah’s circumstances is compared not only to a great dawn, but also to the joy of harvest and the celebrations that follow a decisive victory over an oppressor, the bringing in of a new era of peace.

The event that has led to this celebration is the birth of a child, a crown prince and an heir to the throne of David. Verses 6-7 may take a form related to that of a coronation ceremony, the names of verse 6—Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace—being the honorific titles given to the new ruler on such an occasion. The sign of David’s heir is an auspicious indicator of the positive destiny for a formerly oppressed nation, a galvanization of its sovereignty and a promise of its enjoyment of peace in the years to come. This child is often identified with Hezekiah.

Themes of new birth are common within scriptural narratives. At key moments in the biblical narratives and the story of the people of YHWH, a new dawn is seen to arrive with the birth of a child through divine favor and promise, shattering the gloom of a former darkness and serving as a propitious sign of a future that breaks with the oppression of the past. This is most notably seen at the beginning of the book of Exodus, in 1 Samuel, and later, in the book of Luke. In each of these books, we see an emphasis upon the ‘labor’ of women and the manner in which they and the children that they bear are the means by which a new hope arrives.

Such themes are scattered throughout the book of Isaiah, but perhaps most prominently in the two preceding chapters. In 7:14-16 and 8:1-4, newborn children serve as signs of divine favor and coming deliverance. The children of a nascent generation represent the horizon upon which the light of a glorious new day is beginning to break. Later on, in chapter 11, infants and young children are integral to Isaiah’s vision of a promised era of miraculous peace, of a time when the little child leads lions, where nursing children play by the cobra’s hole, and weaned children put their hands in vipers’ dens (11:6-9). The frequency of metaphors of God’s mother- and father-like care and provision for his people in the wider context of the book of Isaiah is worth noting, highlighting both the radical dependency and radical provision that are integral to many biblical visions of God’s promised future.

The fragility of the purchase that the promise seems to have upon the future is well illustrated by the weakness, vulnerability, and dependence of an infant. The future that the child represents is still far off and many challenges and difficulties lie between the present and that distant prospect. The child, the embodiment of the nation’s hopes, must be protected and nurtured for many years before the future that he stands for can ever be realized. God’s gift of a child is both a foretaste of the promised future and a commitment to provide in the interim.

For many of us within the UK, the recent birth and christening of His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge was a very potent reminder of the power of a child to stand for a distant future and to draw a nation’s attention to a time beyond that in which it finds itself. Like the first shaft of light of a coming day, the beginning of such a life in our midst invites us to reflect upon all of the possibilities, promise, and peril of a time where all that will remain of us is our legacy and memory. In this infant, in all of his vulnerability, we see a bridge between our time and one which is to come, a piece of us that will remain.

Children, on account of their power to disrupt the natural present-centeredness of our outlook, can be a profoundly potent force in shaping our political visions. Children awake us to the question of what we will leave behind when we are gone, bringing us to such things as the troubling awareness of the long-term damage that we are causing to our planet and the cost that our descendants will have to bear for our selfishness and irresponsible stewardship. Children can also serve as sources of hope, holding open the possibility a future in which many of the hostilities, fears, and prejudices of our own age will be overcome, a closing of old chapters and a chance to start afresh.

The role of infants and young children as prophetic signs that we witness in the book of Isaiah is not without parallel in our own day and age. As in Isaiah’s day, infants are like windows onto a time that offers new light and perspective upon and hope within our own. In their very weakness, children alert us to the precariousness of the future itself. In their helplessness, they remind us both of our responsibility to them and of our own radical dependence upon God. As we see the vulnerability of our children in the face of the threat of the wolves, cobras, lions, and vipers of our world, we are spurred to commit ourselves with a greater zeal to the difficult task of patient peace-making, to a politics that exists for the sake of the weak and dependent among us.

For these and many other reasons, children are essential to the formation of a healthy political vision. A Christian politics is a politics within which we attend to the child that Jesus has brought into our midst. In regarding the sign of children we can accomplish an existential turn from a politics driven by the selfish interests of our own generation to one of responsibility and hope for the well-being of those to come.

For the Christian tradition, Isaiah 9:1-7 has been read as a text foretelling the coming of Christ. In the infant Jesus, the ‘dayspring’ of God has visited us, the one in whom the night and all of its shadows will finally dissolve into perfect day. Like Anna and Simeon in the temple in Luke 2, in the fragile and dependent infant Jesus, we are by faith to see the assurance of the fullness of God’s future. In the vulnerable infancy of Jesus, we are also reminded of the committed parenthood of God, a God who will nurture and protect the seeds of a promised future until the time when, with the final arrival of his peaceable kingdom, the earth is filled with their rich fruit. A politics that operates in terms of this will find itself empowered with the profoundest of hopes and charged with the greatest of responsibilities.

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